It's Been All Change For Drapers (27 June 1975)
One of the oldest firms in Bletchley who are still operating from their original site are the well-known drapers, A G Cowlishaw and Son, whose business in Aylesbury Street, Fenny Stratford, was founded in 1912 or 1913.
But the Cowlishaw connection with Fenny goes back further – to the time last century when Mr John Cowlishaw, grandfather of the present Mr Douglas Cowlishaw, came from Derbyshire to be headmaster of the old High Street school, which is now the Masonic Hall.
Mr Douglas Cowlishaw tells me that his grandfather was still headmaster when the school moved from High Street to one of the then new school buildings in Queensway in the late 1890s, but that he died very shortly afterwards.
Meanwhile, the headmaster’s son, Mr Alfred G Cowlishaw, was learning the drapery trade in London. There he met his future wife, who was with a dressmaking firm. She too came from this district, being daughter of Mr Fisher, of Home Farm, Buckingham Road, Old Bletchley.
He moved to Aylesbury, but romance had blossomed and shortly after their marriage they returned to this district to set up in business for themselves on the present site.
This was only a year or two before the first world war. At that time the property was not as large as it later became, being just a fairly substantial house, which they set about converting into a shop, with living accommodation above. The façade was extended later at each end as the business grew.
When the 1914 war came along Mr Cowlishaw went on active service with the artillery, leaving Mrs Cowlishaw in charge. But she was a very capable business woman and on his return they resumed a working combination which achieved considerable success over the following decades and made them two of the foremost tradespeople in a town which even then was experiencing a considerable natural growth.
A guide book issued by the council in 1922 carries the advertisement: “A G Cowlishaw, Aylesbury Street, Bletchley, draper and costumier. Everything for ladies’ and children’s wear, Agent for Twilfit corsets. Every corset guaranteed and will be exchanged if unsatisfactory. Selection from 5s 11d to 21s in stock.”
In 1922 also they moved from over the shop to a house they built on the site of former thatched cottages in Aylesbury Street – thus gaining more working and store space at the same time.
While Mr Cowlishaw concerned himself mainly with the drapery side, Mrs Cowlishaw developed the dressmaking side. Girls were taken on to learn that trade. By 1925 there was a staff of seven in the workroom, the juniors taking home 4s 8½d a week in wages. For a total staff of nine the weekly National Insurance amounted to only 14s 8d.
At one time there was a staff of 12 young ladies in the workroom and three or four in the shop.
Mr Douglas Cowlishaw was born in the flat over the shop and has been in the trade all his working life, starting as an apprentice with an Oxford firm in about 1935. Just before the second world war he came back to Bletchley and started a shop in Queensway. It was in one of those premises at the Western end which have now been demolished.
He remembers that at that time, 1938, a well-known brand of shirts retailed at 5s,7s 6d, and 10s and ties at 1s 6d and 2s 6d. Shirts are now £5 and ties anything from £1.50 to £2.
A well-known brand of collars were 1s 3d each. He now has just one box of them: price 40p (8s) each.
But he is not over-keen on comparing present prices with those of former years because, owing to the ever-increasing use of synthetic materials, the articles themselves have changed so much. Even the price of a reel of cotton is influenced by the fact that the bobbin is now made of plastic instead of wood.
Only a year or so after setting up the Queensway shop he left his father in charge and served four-and-a-half years with the RAF in North Africa and Italy before coming back.
His father died in 1961 and his mother in 1966. “I had the two shops to run for some considerable time. I then decided to leave Queensway and to concentrate on this shop in good old Fenny Stratford,” says Mr Cowlishaw, whose sister – now Mrs Audrey Tew – has also played a part in the business.
Many people remember the very popular parties Mr Alfred Cowlishaw ran for some years before the war in the High Street school building. Financially, they were for the trade charity, the Purley Schools, of which he was the area steward and of which Mr Douglas Cowlishaw is now steward.
He says it was their memories of those pre-war parties that partly influenced the late Mr Bert Weatherhead and himself to organise the annual Chamber of Trade ball at Wilton Hall, which for a decade after the war was the town’s social event of the year.
But to get back to business: “My father used to ‘do’ everything, but nowadays one has to specialise more. It’s far better to do a few lines properly than to try and do everything, unless you are a very large department store,” he says.
So his prior trade today is household linen and soft furnishings.
Big changes are also being made to the premises. The shop is being limited to one part of the ground floor. A new wing is being added to the Denmark Street end. This wing, the rest of the ground floor and the upper floor, will then become available for letting as offices.
The block will be known as Gervaise House – because my father’s second name was Gervaise.”